Propped shakily over the lapping waters of Lake Maracaibo in the Caribbean-facing northeast corner of Venezuela, the tiny settlement of Congo Mirador is as tranquil as it is far-flung, but only the most obtuse of passing backpackers would describe it as idyllic. Impoverished and increasingly depopulated as it bears the economic brunt of the country’s political discord, it’s a village almost literally on the verge of sliding into the mud: Water pollution and sedimentation from nearby oil drilling have strangled its local fishing industry, while modest houses struggle to stay afloat. Over the course of several years, Anabel Rodriguez Rios’ unsentimentally elegiac documentary “Once Upon a Time in Venezuela” quietly observes Congo Mirador being brought to its knees, to progressively powerful and enraging effect.
Yet this is not a work of heart-sinking miserablism: The film captures communal resilience and institutional corruption in equal measure. Since its premiere in Sundance’s world documentary competition, Rodriguez Rios’ impressive first foray into nonfiction features has racked up considerable mileage on the virtual festival circuit, and has been selected as Venezuela’s official entry for the international feature Oscar. That upstart streaming service Topic has recently acquired North American streaming rights to the film is a suitable acknowledgement of its emotional accessibility and restrained technical polish.
Some viewers may wish to brush up on recent Venezuelan headlines before diving in, however: Pleasingly free of hand-holding title cards and talking heads, “Once Upon a Time in Venezuela” assumes its audience to have a working knowledge of the country’s political polarization and economic woes since the 2013 death of socialist president Hugo Chavez. Still, it’s loose enough on specifics that its study of rural communities disregarded by those in power will resonate across borders. Though the film’s criticism of the current Venezuelan political regime is implicit, its perspective is not one-sided: Rodriguez Rios divides her its attention equally between two female Congo Mirador residents on opposite ends of the national political divide.
Middle-aged Ms. Tamara is a formidable local businesswoman and dogged Chavez loyalist, to the point that she demands visitors touch a statue of the late president before entering her house. Since his death, she has fully placed her faith in his successor Nicolás Maduro, blinkered to charges of corruption and economic mismanagement leveled against his administration. Young village schoolteacher Natalie, however, is an ardent supporter of the opposition, outspoken in her criticism of the government. As the 2018 national election approaches, the two women lock horns. Ms. Tamara thinks nothing of bribing fellow villagers to vote for Maduro, while also seeking to push Natalie out of her job via hovering Chavista school inspectors.
Often shooting in sun-flooded daylight, Rodriguez Dios and cinematographer John Marquez invest considerable time and care in calmly observing the routines and rituals of people doing their level best to live in the face of ruin: There are fish to be gutted, school lessons to be taught, and junior beauty pageants to be staged before too many more residents make the decision to pack their belongings and float on to pastures (or waters) new.
For however impassioned the conflict between Ms. Tamara and Natalie, it still amounts to a fight for the soul of an dying community. Once home to several hundred households, Congo Mirador has shrunk to about 30 families, a victim of population exodus that won’t be reversed as long as the environmental pollution of the region continues unabated. High and mighty as she may be in her own small, murky pond, Ms. Tamara’s pleas to the government in Caracas to address the situation are met with either silence or empty platitudes. In a revealing scene that invites empathy for this bullish, rather closed-minded woman, the camera follows her to a promising meeting arranged with a governor in the capital, only to watch as he all but ignores her, taking calls throughout. It’s as close as this quiet, measured documentary comes to palpable seething. Stray glimmers of life and hope come closer to home — at least, in the limited time that Congo Mirador remains home to anyone at all.